Seeking Solutions to Homelessness Leads GSSW Grad on Unstoppable Path
Sitting at her desk in the Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW), Katie Calhoun reflects on her time in Denver. The soon-to-be PhD graduate has spent four years working with GSSW’s Center on Housing and Homelessness Research (CHHR), but her quest to find innovative solutions to homelessness began years prior while working as a clinician.
“I saw a very common thread—housing instability in the individuals and families that I was working with,” Calhoun says. “It raised a lot of different questions with me.”
Ultimately, her pursuit of answers to those questions led her to DU. And since joining CHHR, she’s worked on three main projects, all in partnership with community organizations.
When she first started, Calhoun worked on an evaluation of Beloved Community Village, Denver's first tiny home village for the unhoused. In 2020, she worked with the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative, a group of community organizations that provide safe parking for those sheltering in their vehicles.
Calhoun’s biggest project to date is the Denver Basic Income Project, where she’s provided critical support and analysis. The year-long randomized controlled trial provides no-strings-attached cash to people experiencing homelessness. While guaranteed income projects are gaining traction across the country, she says very few are looking at them as a response to homelessness.
“We’re one of the very few taking this unique approach to a unique intervention,” she says. “It’s been very fun to work with it from the start.”
So far, the initial findings are positive. They’ve conducted qualitative interviews with individuals who were a part of the soft launch in July 2022.
Through the analysis, Calhoun found that many participants became housed or talked about proximal indicators of housing, such as living with a family member and contributing to the household. For those who found housing, Calhoun says, many shared that the combination of social services and direct cash was powerful. For example, the recurring income allowed individuals to qualify for programs that pay for a deposit and first month’s rent.
“There’s a lot of evidence for housing first programs,” Calhoun says. “The first intervention should be getting folks into housing. Then the other things follow. It’s a lot easier to engage in those services if they have a place to sleep at night.”
For Daniel Brisson, professor and director of CHHR, Calhoun has been an invaluable member of the center.
“She’s impacted the unhoused in ways I couldn’t have if she had not worked there,” Brisson says.
As Calhoun’s responsibility at the center grew, so did her understanding of research methods. She says the process shouldn’t be extractive but instead a relationship-building experience.
“I was working with an individual who was unhoused. He was asking about the research methods. He was having some hesitation because he didn’t want to be reduced to a number,” she says.
It was a bit of an aha moment for Calhoun. By facilitating conversations and building relationships early with communities, she aims to avoid harm.
“The researcher gets to publish their findings. They get the promotion. They get the capital that comes with research without really acknowledging the community,” Calhoun says. “Many of us are a lot closer to being unhoused than super wealthy. These are our neighbors.”
While Calhoun’s journey at DU is almost over, her journey as a researcher and professor is only beginning. In the fall, Calhoun will join The Ohio State University as an assistant professor in the College of Social Work, where she’ll continue her work with the unhoused.
“We’re smart,” she says. “Homelessness is solvable.”